I don’t know many authors who are as prolific as Amélie Nothomb. Since her first novel, Hygiene and the Assassin, was published in 1992, she published another 36 or more. I’ve read her first and one of her newer ones, Barbe Bleu, which I reviewed here. I always meant to get back to her and finally chose The Stranger Next Door, as I’ve come across a really appealing review on Guy’s blog here. The Stranger Next Door is one of her earlier novels, her fifth to be precise, published 1995.
The Hazels are happily married and like nothing better than solitude and being with each other. Emile Hazel has just retired from his job as Latin and Greek teacher. The Hazels are looking forward to their retirement. The only thing that’s missing is the perfect house in a perfect location, far away from any other people. Luckily, they find that house. The HOUSE. It’s amazing and in such a beautiful landscape. The next village is miles away. There is a neighbour, a doctor, so that too, is perfect. On their first day, it starts to snow, and they enjoy a wonderful walk. When they come back, they look forward to an evening of peace and quiet but at 4pm sharp, someone knocks on the door. It is their neighbour. They are not too keen on being disturbed like this but what can they do? They ask him in, and he stays for a full two hours hardly talking, looking morose, and clearly not enjoying his stay. Glad when the visit is finally over, they don’t want to think about it anymore, but at 4pm sharp, the next day, they have to as their neighbour repeats his visit. And the next day. And the day after. He comes at 4pm and leaves at 6pm, every time demanding coffee, not talking, and only answering with yes or no or not at all. It’s like a sinister groundhog day.
I often wonder if Amélie Nothomb is one of those authors who begin their stories with a “What if” question. It seems that’s exactly what she did here. What if you were living in a wonderful house, and suddenly someone turns up stubbornly every day at the same time, even though he doesn’t seem to enjoy it? What would a polite, cowardly person do?
The intrusion of their neighbour triggers all sorts of feelings and finally also reactions in them. At first, they are just helpless. How does one handle a situation like this without being rude? After a while, being rude is the least of their problems. As this story progresses and the doctor’s wife, a grotesquely obese woman, is introduced as well, it becomes more and more sinister.
This is a dark little novel with bizarre and grotesque elements and an outcome that’s quite unforeseeable. I literally couldn’t put it down. I needed to know where this was going. It’s told from the point of view of Emile Hazel and to see his polished surface crack and a new character emerge is fascinating. And also relatable. Haven’t we all, at times, felt that we should have said no earlier? That we were too nice, too polite? Most of the times, it won’t end like it does here but very often, we too might have felt – enough is enough.
If you like dark and twisted stories, you might enjoy this.